“He got stopped for being black. Get woke, Scully!”
When Brooklyn Nine-Nine explores police racism in season four’s “Moo Moo”, trust one of its biggest buffoons to utter one of the show’s strongest statements to date. As the barely competent Hitchcock (Dirk Blocker) confidently schools partner Scully (Joel McKinnon Miller) in departmental discrimination, voicing a truth his more respected colleagues have been too polite to say aloud, viewers are meant to laugh — but they’re meant to take notice, too.
Indeed, it’s an “out of the mouths of babes” moment, designed to draw audiences in with humour, while reflecting a difficult reality. That prejudice exists, including between white and black police officers, isn’t new news. In 2008, the highest-ranking black officer in the New York Police Department was profiled and harassed by white cops while out of uniform, and the spate of black civilians brutalised by police has been well-publicised.
With Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s squad led by two black men — Captain Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher) and Sergeant Terry Jeffords (Terry Crews) — “it would almost feel woeful to not talk about this thing that is happening,” co-writer Dan Goor told Buzzfeed.
The episode focuses on Terry’s experiences walking through his own neighbourhood. He’s looking for a blanket that was lost while Jake (Andy Samberg) and Amy (Melissa Fumero) were babysitting his six-year-old twin daughters, when he’s stopped by a white cop.
Officer Maldack (Desmond Harrington) immediately assumes the worst, judging Terry on his skin colour and size, assuming that something’s awry in the nice, suburban neighbourhood, and refusing to give him a chance to explain. As Terry says later, he’s not being seen as an officer of the law here — he’s simply, just on appearances, being classed as a threatening black man.
How does Terry react? How can society address engrained injustice? How can a good person right a systemic wrong without suffering any consequences, especially when speaking out against the status quo? They’re just some of the questions Brooklyn Nine-Nine asks, in what might be the most probing episode across its four-season run.
Terry is furious, but after chatting about the situation with his team — and ignoring Rosa’s (Stephanie Beatriz) suggestion of violence — he decides that having a conversation with Maldack is the best course of action. After Maldack only apologises for questioning another cop, reiterating that Terry looked out of place and he was just doing his job, he tries to take matters further.
Assuming that Holt will share his fury and support him, he attempts to file an official complaint, but is caught by surprise by his superior's response. With Terry applying for a new role as a police liaison with the city council, Holt draws upon his own tough experiences as a black gay officer to advocate for rising through the ranks to effect change from within instead.
While finding laughs in protecting and serving is the show’s standard remit, it doesn’t usually purport to offer a realistic depiction of police operations or of broader societal issues. Instead, its main premise is to highlight the bonds between a diverse, close-knit crew proud to don a badge rather than detail the daily minutiae of their job.
Accordingly, its look at the impact of race upon policing is still coupled with the show’s trademark hilarity — after mentioning the “deep-rooted institutionalised racism that remains pervasive in this country to this day”, Gina (Chelsea Peretti) puts her feelings in song, crooning, “Racism, racism, raaaaacism”. But there’s no doubting the seriousness behind its approach.
From starting “Moo Moo” with a well-meaning comparison of a white and black officer in a “who wore it best?” competition, to forcing Terry to confront the complications surrounding fighting for progress, to saddling Jake and Amy with explaining racism to six-year-olds, Brooklyn Nine-Nine doesn’t shy away from its topic. It organically but insightfully dissects just how the subject of race is intertwined with modern American life in a multitude of ways.
“My hope is that people watch the episode, and even if it’s in a small way, [recognise] that racial profiling is a very real thing in this country, that racism is still a very real thing in this country,” co-writer Phil Augusta Jackson also told Buzzfeed. ”And that it's a complex issue that is worth talking about.”
You can stream "Moo Moo" episode of Brooklyn Nine Nine now on SBS On Demand, with the show airing fast-tracked episodes every Wednesday night from 8:05pm.